Matters of taste

How to cook octopus on a boat
July 18, 2013

A fisherman catches an octopus in Greece

My boyfriend Adrien and I went sailing for a week in the Aegean. His mission was to deploy the jennaker, a sail he had never used before; mine was to catch, kill and cook an octopus. On the afternoon of the first day we moored underneath a white washed chapel in a sandbarred bay on the island of Kithnos. I put on my snorkel, jumped into the sea and went looking for my prey.

Octopi live in orifi and change colour to camouflage themselves against the rocks. I peered into many stony crevices, wary of poking my fingers into spiny sea urchins, but I couldn’t see anything except fat slug sea cucumbers. “This is going to be harder than I thought,” I told Adrien, somewhat dejected.

We went ashore at Loutra, a perfect harbour that defines the “sleepy Greek fishing village.” Sun-hot somnolence that lingered through dusk, a couple of tavernas at the water’s edge, a gentle oily lap of shore and the tread of cats. Dinner: thick bready taramasalata, fried red mullet and octopus, thick armed, densly chewy in a red wine cephalopod gravy that I mopped with bread. “How do you cook an octopus?” I asked the proprietor.

“The little ones you can grill, the big ones you have to boil or they are too—” and he made a pulling tyre movement between hands and teeth. “First you smash it 40 times. It’s tradition.” He winked. “Not less than 40! Not 39!” “And how do you catch an octopus?” I asked.

“You take it by the hands,” he said simply, shrugging. “The octopus is afraid more than you.” Cooking in a yacht galley, sway and slosh, braced against the ticking timer of sea seasickness that begins to wind up nausea the minute you duck inside, is an excercise in simplicity and speed. Perfectly suited, I found, to Greek food. Knife, bowl, tomato and red onion hacked into chunks, brick of feta, throw on capers, salt and pepper, dried oregano, squirt of vinegar and cover in a giant wallowing slug of olive oil. Three minutes. The greatest salad in the world. Salt and sweet and sour. No niceties, no fine chopping, no whisking dressing.

From a quayside market I bought silver flashing sardines, so fresh it was a crime to cook them, so I threw them raw in a bowl with olive oil, lemon pulped between my fingertips, capers and a few leaves of parsley. We filletted them with our fingernails and slurped the slippery soft brown flesh in between sips of fresh green wine, the cheap kind, easy and light to drink as the sun goes down and the sea is flooded with orange soda. I made a super fast ratatouille, into the frying pan: zucchini, young green marrow, onion, tomato. I fried little blue and yellow striped fish with just a quick dusting of flour to make them crisp. I boiled potatoes with a wonderfully strange, slightly succulent needle-leaved green an old man was selling from the paniers of a moped.

“No calamari today,” said the fishermen on the dock at Loutra, but they had a two-pound octopus. I was not sure buying it counted as catching it. It was mottled brown with purple suckers that weakly tried to grip my fingers. It died sometime during the morning. I didn’t think this counted as killing it either. But I did cook it. First I threw it hard against the non-stick fibreglass of the deck 40 times. Adrien looked on slightly appalled. The thrashing sloughed off its slime into a viscous foam. “That’s disgusting,” he said, swilling the deck clean with a bucket of sea water.

Then I cut off its head and threw it into the sea. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about the greatest sushi chef in the world, Jiro advocates massaging an octopus for around an hour to tenderise it. I did it for about 30 minutes, and I think I used too much salt scrub. Then I boiled it in plain water for about an hour. (Too long, it turned out; 30 or 40 minutes would have sufficed). I cut the legs into chunks and boiled the cooking water down to an umami octopus syrup. The resulting braise was so strong and rich and salty that we decided it needed pasta to cut and soothe it. A little lemon juice to leaven. Wow. It was a powerful flavour, a little greenish black purple around the edges, a little marine funkiness, and still chewy enough to remind us of its stretchy original.

A week of blue days: life reduced to the rhythms of the sea, navy taffeta waves rilled into white ruffles by our wake, life limned into the infinity horizon. We had a day to spend in Athens on the way home and I wanted to try a fancy Greek restaurant. We went to Milos at the Hilton Hotel. When we arrived it was completely empty. The waiter pointed out the fresh fish on display and made several suggestions. We nodded. And then the food began to arrive—a bowl of sea urchin brightened with a tiny bit of lemon and olive oil; a big barnacled Greek oyster, tasting like a briny shot mixed with sweeter clam juice; a plate of sea bass carpaccio with lemon zest and thyme. We played raw marine hopscotch with our taste buds. Each flavour as clear and simple and elemental and elegant as very fine Japanese. A salad with Cretan tomatoes, a creamy goat’s cheese and fronds of sea fennel; deep fried anchovies, which Adrien loved so much he ate them with his fingers, pronouncing the heads the best bit; and grilled octopus, soft—soft!—warm and slightly smoky grilled next to a spoonful of the yellow nutty chickpea mash that comes from Santorini.

The chef, Periklis Koskinas, came and sat down as we tucked into a final dish of skate. Milos was first founded in the early 1980s by an expat Greek in Montreal, to counterbalance the bad reputation Greek food had as greasy and heavy. Outposts have since opened and done well in New York, Las Vegas and Miami; another is planned for London. But reimporting high-end Greek to Greece has proved ironically more difficult. I pointed at the empty tables. “Yes, we are really struggling here in Athens,” said Periklis a bit sadly. “Partly it’s the economic crisis, but partly Greeks are just not as mature or wise as diners in America.”

I marvelled at the extreme simplicity we had just eaten. On the table was the trio of olive oil, lemon halves, salt. The only sauce necessary. Despite the table cloths and the crystal wine glasses we ate with our hands, squeezing, sharing, swabbing. Periklis cooked far better than I, but the dazzling clarity that he served up mirrored our experience at sea.

“Greek food has something that the country has,” Periklis explained. “It comes from the light—simple and clean and clear. It is the same way you see the sky from a boat. It’s not important to apply techniques and mix things up. A grilled sardine is good enough.”